A Brief Survey of the Territory
Running is a key that generates a variety of experiences and joys for a large number of people world wide, hence the astronomical increase in citizen participation in road races of every distance. This blog and ones that follow will address the topic of “Runners High”, why such a thing exists, how might we cultivate it, learn from it, and weave its lessons into the fabric of our lives?
We have evolved into a species that has all the anatomy and physiology in place to excel in endurance athletics, especially running. We also have developed emotionally and mentally over time, giving us the capacity for a psychic/mystical orientation towards experience. Blend these two qualities, the endurance and mystical capacities, and a very luring hybrid emerges, commonly known as the Runner’s High.
It is likely that the sense of bodily strength, lightness, and the fluid ease of movement that accompanies transcendent running experiences developed first for our nomadic ancestors. As we climbed the evolutionary ladder, our consciousness expanded from mere survival to creativity and influence on our environment, and the mystical aspects of higher emotional and mental functions developed.
Running has appeared at times though history as a vehicle to tap into these mystical and creative sources. Examples range from the Lung -gom-pa of Tibet to the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei in Japan to native tribes of north America such as the Tarahumara of Northern Mexico where running is a centerpiece of their culture and spiritual aspirations. From this perspective running is a key that can unlock various potentials. There are things we can do to enhance this experience, make it more predictable, and integrate it into our lives. Taking cue from what is observed in the sequence of man’s development is a perfect guideline on to how to proceed; addressing the bodily aspect first, the foundation.
This post will be the first in a series that addresses the actions that fall within our power, directing our bodies and minds, to enhance our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual experience while running. Here I’m going to talk about our relationship to gravity and the ground. In future blogs I will elaborate on the nuts and bolts of running, running technique and mental focus that could potentially yield transcendent experiences. This would be setting up the best possible set of conditions, those that produce a flowing sense of unity, subtle power, and well-being.
There are two very different yet related ways of observing and understanding the running movement. One is the scientific approach; angles, numbers, force plate analysis, and kinematic analysis. The other would be an intuitive approach; how that same movement meets our human standards of aesthetic perfection. You don’t need a higher degree in biomechanics to know when you’re seeing graceful movement. You feel it. It is effortless, fluid, and a joy to watch. You can be quite certain it is close to peak efficiency. This is the Kinesthetic (body sensing) Component of the Zone. Good movement feels good, it makes the mover feel good and as runners, we know just that can elevate our mood. So getting this graceful, high efficiency running right is the initial target towards developing/generating and receiving higher energy potentials, the hallmark of radiant running.
Ground and Gravity
(The body is the foundation of our experience, both our bodily experience and experience that transcends the body.)
The foundational requirements for peak efficiency evolved around our relationship to ground as an upright creature. Posture and muscles have to be in balance up and down the chain to take full advantage of our unique two-legged stance. This balance will affect our stride and what is possible below. Head, neck, chest, torso, and arms also relate to the ground. What determines this relationship is proper segmental alignment, which sets the stage for and encourages relaxation. When we relax we relax down, tension is gone, muscles and related structures are free to move without being inhibited and without excess. We become “Grounded”. And paradoxically we become light and fluid. Not so mysterious though; fluid because we are not bound up with tight resistant muscles, and light because our awareness of weight is a function of our tactile sense of density in our muscles (and thoughts) not the number that stares back at us from the scale. You don’t feel dense and heavy when you’re loose and relaxed!
Being Grounded means that we are able to harvest the full force and power of this intimate relationship to ground and gravity. Any excess tension we hold in our feet, legs, and hips, (and the rest of our body) and bring to our running will get in the way of elastic recoil known in running circles as “natural springs”. This excess tension will also have a dampening effect on stretch reflexes that activate the muscles of the feet, calves, legs and hips. The lack of this free energy return, that is associated with the right relationship with the ground, and subsequently ground reaction, will make a runner feel heavy. Somewhere I’ve read that good running has more to do with what you aren’t doing, and anywhere we hold tension we are busy doing something just in the act of being tight. Good running does itself, that’s why it looks and feels effortless. It’s that point where you stop trying as you run; you’re just being and the doing does itself. Just this satisfies a very common and important hallmark theme in Eastern Spirituality, that of Non-Doing where the collision between innocence and activity creates beauty.
So how do you cultivate this? The best way is to practice relaxation is in a variety of positions. There are many relaxation techniques. If you search the Internet you will find some good ones. Most basic would be ones where you are lying on your back. The Corpse Pose in Yoga is one style of this kind of exercise that will engage deep breathing to help accomplish the deep state of relaxation. Since you want to bring this into movement, walking and running, a favorite of mine is a “grounding stance” much like the ready position in tennis without the being lurched forward to receive a serve. Sometimes referred to as the Standing Stake in Tai Chi. Once in the position systematically relax your body and feel the connection with the ground under your feet. Use the out breath as you focus your attention on settling earthward. When you feel “relaxed down”, then stand upright and walk keeping a focus on allowing your muscles of your limbs and torso to be loose and let yourself be mobile with your arms and legs swinging freely. Then take it into a run continuing to focus on relaxation.
As for gravity…this can be a very friendly force, but for a runner with a poor body position, it can beat you up. When friendly it is buoyant force that is associated with good stride mechanics and body position, and allows that equal and opposite force to act at just the right angles. Meaning you fall into your motion and gravity puts free speed money in your pocket. Add the right measure of relaxation and forces of impact are free to move and dissipate over a larger area of your body. As you move through space the body develops and maintains a momentum that is not corrupted by a faulty relationship to gravity or by excess resistance in your muscles and limbs.
These very mundane bodily focuses establish the foundation for higher energy running experiences. On one hand there is the best possible form and posture that allows for the free energy return from the ground and gravity, and on the other there is the unimpeded flow and circulation of energy as you run.
All of us as runners experience some aspects of these higher energy potentials and this has been aptly deemed Runners High. Everything from profound “Zone” experiences to just feeling really good during and or after a run, physically and emotionally. Hopefully this will be a guide to help you understand and develop this very special capacity.